World and Nation

Japan’s Governing Party Is Plunging in Polls

Is this the beginning of the end for Japan’s long-governing Liberal Democratic Party?

A lawmaker championing government reform quit the party on Tuesday, saying that the administration of Prime Minister Taro Aso was not committed to change and had lost the people’s trust.

The high-profile resignation came as Aso’s approval ratings have fallen and his party’s chances of losing a coming election have risen sharply. Analysts say it may embolden other lawmakers, who have signaled similar intentions, to act.

“Unfortunately, Aso’s Liberal Democratic Party has practiced politics completely disconnected from the people,” said Yoshimi Watanabe, who served as minister of administrative reform in two previous administrations, and had become one of the most recognizable faces pressing for change in the government bureaucracy.

Opinion polls published this week by major Japanese newspapers showed Aso’s approval ratings slipping below 20 percent, a danger sign in a country where governments with ratings below 30 percent have fallen.

Dissatisfaction with his government was underscored by voters’ strong rejection of free money — Aso’s plan to jump-start the economy through cash handouts of at least $130 per person — as a cynical attempt to woo voters, polls showed.

Aso, who must call a general election by September, rejected pressure from Watanabe and the opposition to do so immediately. He said he would not consider dissolving parliament’s lower house and calling an election until the nation’s budget was passed in April. The prime minister appeared to be counting on a bounce in the polls from the cash handouts. But more than 70 percent of voters opposed them, saying they would do nothing to stimulate the overall economy, according to polls.

“Voters have already given up on him and on the party,” said Naoto Nonaka, a professor of politics at Gakushuin University here.

Members of Aso’s party — who chose him last September in the hopes of riding his coattails — appeared increasingly to be counting him out as well. Worried about their survival, they could follow Watanabe out of the party, after the budget is passed in April, to run for re-election as independents.

“Mr. Watanabe is playing a political game and jumping around to draw attention, but many around him are thinking the same thing,” said Nonaka, whose recent book is “The End of Liberal Democratic Party Politics.” “I expect we’ll see even bigger developments in April or May.”

Defeat for the Liberal Democratic Party, which has led Japan since 1955 for all but 11 months, could lead to a long-expected realignment in Japan’s political landscape. Senior members of the party have already publicly put out feelers to the main opposition Democratic Party. Smaller opposition parties — including the People’s New Party, which was formed in 2005 by former members of the Liberal Democratic Party — have begun positioning themselves.